Next “El Bulli” and The Aviary [3], Chicago IL

The Gist: Achatz and Beran paying tribute to Adria at what is undoubtedly the most anticipated restaurant “opening” of 2012; 29 dishes taken from the El Bulli repertoire stretching from 1987 to 2010 and focusing on the growth and development of both the restaurant and the man behind it.

The Why: The reasons are myriad. For one, I really like Achatz and have enjoyed three stunning meals at Alinea plus two prior visits to Next. Secondly, with my upcoming cross country move it is likely that my visits to Chicago will become far less frequent in the years to come. Third, and most importantly, I am likely one of a very small handful of people who passed on a chance to visit the real El Bulli prior to its closing and although it was never “#1” on my list, it was definitely on “the list” and I had faith that if anyone could pull off an homage to Adria it was Achatz and his team.

The Reservation: If you don’t know about the Next Ticket system I’m not sure how you found this blog, but suffice it to say that while I respect the concept I do not particularly like its implementation, particularly as it relates to the forced season tickets in order to experience this menu. With regard to how I myself ended up at Next “El Bulli” on 3/18, I was at work when tickets went on sale and failed to obtain them myself, but was lucky enough to have someone reach out to me with a spare when his brother could not attend; he also used his privileges to make a reservation for myself and Rich at The Aviary on 3/17 after our dinner at EL Ideas. Thanks Jon.

The Space: Fulton Market is not Roses, but each table was indeed adorned with a single Rose hanging overhead and for those of us lucky enough to get an early seating our arrival was greeted with the sound of waves lapping on the shore via overhead speakers. As always tables are nicely spaced, overhead lighting is clearly designed to focus on the food and to encourage photographs, and although the noise level this time was the loudest I’ve experienced at Next it was never overbearing or unpleasant.

The Service: Stellar, as always. Professional, whimsical, clever, informative, and with no second seating to worry about also very laid back this time around allowing diners to truly enjoy the experience at their own pace. Each course was presented beginning with the date of origin followed by a complete description of constituents, techniques, its significance to El Bulli’s development, and finally why it was included in the tribute menu. Drinks, likewise, were presented with ample descriptions and pours were copious with refills offered to those who desired.

The Food: 29-courses, alcoholic pairings for some and non-alcoholic pairings for others. $456 with tax and tip. Additionally, two drinks and a number of El Bulli themed bites from Aviary the prior night.

Nitro Caipirinha with Tarragon Concentrate: Liquid nitrogen frozen riff on the Brazilian cocktail of cachaca, sugar, and lime with a heady topnote of tarragon concentrate. Sweet meets savory and intensely herbal this was an ideal opening volley readying the palate for pretty much any flavor to follow.

Alcoholic Beverage 1, Jané Ventura “Brut Nature” Cava reserva, Péndes 2008: Dry, slightly bitter, and intense this was the “morphing” beverage of the evening with vials of Pineau des Charentes and Farigoule adding punchy herbal notes and a dropper of Pineau, Farigoule, Malaga Moscatel and Reagans’s Orange Bitters enhancing the potency of the alcohol on the palate but providing a sweet finish on the tongue.

Hot/Cold Trout Roe Tempura: From the year 2000 this bite seemed rather commonplace today, as a matter of fact I had something quite similar at Yusho the previous evening, but with the piping hot and crunchy tempura shell giving way to the cool, briny pop of the roe the importance of this dish was realizing that Adria was doing this over a decade ago.

Spherical Olives: Perhaps Adria’s most ‘famous’ dish and one replicated in various flavors by 100s of chef’s since there really is not much to be said about this bite that hasn’t already been uttered – a bit of alginate, a whole lot of olive flavor, one bite and an intense gush of flavor.

Non-Alcoholic Beverage 1, Coconut Lychee Lime: Smooth, sweet, and just a touch sour on the finish. One of my favorites of the evening and an inspired choice for the snacks portion of the menu.

Coca of avocado pear, anchovies, and green onion: From 1991 and prior to the wizardry this was a nicely balanced bite focusing on balanced textures and flavors with the overall effect a crunchy gives way to smooth bite rife with both brine and sweetness. Shockingly, perhaps, this would be one of the most raved dishes of the evening by my tablemates.

Iberico Sandwich: Like the spherical olives this was a dish I’d experienced before at the hand of Jose Andres and although it was perhaps the most ‘simple’ presentation of the night it is hard to argue with high quality ham served over crispy bread, especially served alongside the coca as a sort of 1-2 punch on classic Catalonian flavors.

Golden Egg: From 2001 this dish would be declared a dud by the rest of my group, but given my predilection to egg dishes I personally enjoyed the concept; a liquid quail egg inside of a crunchy golden shell providing a mild flavor reminiscent of salty caramel with unctuous undertones.

Non-Alcoholic Beverage 2, Saffron and Celery Infusion: Another interesting drink pairing and one particularly fitting my palate this was the sort of beverage that served a two-fold purpose not only pairing well with the subsequent dishes, but also acting as an herbal palate cleanser between dishes.

Black Sesame Sponge Cake with Miso: From 2007 and potentially my favorite dish of the night this was a nearly fist sized piece of cake delivered on a metal service piece that we were instructed to eat in one bite – a seemingly impossible task until one picked up the cake and realized it weighed next to nothing and could be easily compressed to the size of a golfball. With the black sesame intense and nutty while the miso added plenty of umami this was a great dish – rich without being heavy and the first in a number of texture focused dishes that would deftly show Ferran’s influence on the way we experience food.

Chicken Liquid Croquettes: From 1998 and another dish oft imitated by chefs around the world this crunchy bite featured crisp batter on the exterior and a thickened stock on the interior harkening the very essence of roast chicken; not only was it delicious, but placed in the context of

Smoke Foam – Food for Thought: In a word, weird, yet true to its name a thoroughly thought provoking dish. A sort of thin gelatin foam rife with notes of a bonfire I’m not sure I actually ‘liked’ this dish, but taking into account its 1997 birth date it certainly gave me pause to realize that I was still in high school when Adria was reinventing food.

Carrot Air with Coconut Milk: A visual stunner and an example of how foams can still wow when used in the right context. Neon orange, top notes of carrots dissipating into a Taiwanese inspired coconut curry finish, and all at the cost of essentially zero stomach capacity while serving to cleanse the palate for what arrived next.

Cuttlefish and coconut ravioli with soy, ginger, mint: Another dish from 1997 and following the flavor profile of its predecessor this dish featured a technique I’d seen no more than a few weeks prior at wd~50 – namely using a shellfish to form the ‘noodle’ of a ravioli. Chewy and smooth, sweet yet balanced, and highlighted through the aromatic spices this was another favorite from the evening.

Non-Alcoholic Beverage 3, Rose tea, Rosemary Honey, Peach Puree: Generally not a fan of florals unless they are subdued by bitters this was without a doubt my least favorite beverage of the evening; far too sweet and far too ‘rosy’ this drink found much more success with a tablemate who enjoys rose tea and while I appreciated the idea as it related to the dishes it was meant to compliment it simply did not match my palate.

Savory tomato ice with oregano and almond milk pudding: Perhaps an effect of the beverage or perhaps a failure of the dish itself this cocktail from 1992 would prove to be my least favorite dish of the evening. While I certainly understand its inclusion in a retrospective of the Adria brothers’ canon the tomato was simply too salty and the milk pudding too bland. To my palate, it was almost inedible.

Hot crab aspic with mini corn cous-cous: Rallying back after the tomato this two-part composition was another delicious presentation featuring pseudo-cous-cous formed with nothing more than finely chopped corn, olive oil, and herbs at one side and soft, warm gelatin studded with tender crab at the other. Like many of my other favorites of the evening this was another dish that did not contain much ‘mg’ but rather presented quality ingredients manipulated subtlety to maximize their impact on the senses.

Non-Alcoholic Beverage 4, Roasted Golden Beet, Black Mustard Seeds, and Apple: One of my favorite pairings of the evening, this glass featured sweet and savory tones existing in a subtle balance and by using flavor extraction to add a slight hint of mustard the flavors dissipated on the palate with a decidedly earthy tone befitting both of the following plates. Equally successful, I requested a small pour of the 2007 Cider of heirloom apples and wild yeast that also complimented the dishes well (though in my opinion, less so.)

Cauliflower couscous with solid aromatic herb sauce: Essentially the mid-point of the meal and again a reconceptualization of cous-cous this dish from 2000 featured finely chopped cauliflower seamlessly substituting for the nutty starch with notes of gingerbread, apple, pear, opal basil, fennel, saffron, almond, muscovado sugar, and a light touch of lamb jus forcing the diner to contemplate everything from texture and flavor to the literal difference between ‘sauce’ and ‘solid.’

Suquet of prawns: From the earliest years of El Bulli course fifteen gave the diner a glimpse of the early years in Roses; a rather straight forward and elegant Spanish shrimp stew devoid of butter and simply presenting exemplary seafood prepared in olive oil with potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and herbal aromatics carried by a light froth rendered from the cooking liquids; it was a dish showing Adria’s roots and despite being served originally in 1988 it would not have been out of place on the menu at any fine dining restaurant in 2012.

Non-Alcoholic Beverage 5, Blis Sherry Vinegar, fig juice, pomegranate, barley, black walnut leaf: Another impressive exercise in balancing seemingly disparate flavors this pairing was served in place of the house Sanguis Beer (which sells for $15 should you desire to take one home, as I did for my sister) and although it was only intended to pair with one dish it did an admirable job in that respect while also impressing with a potent sweet top-note giving way to an almost ‘beery’ bitterness that lingered on the palate.

Potato Torta by Marc Singla: From 1998, the year I graduated high school, this admixture of caramelized onion, egg yolk sabayon, and potato foam was named after its inventor – one of Adria’s many students and sous-chefs – and again challenging perceptions of texture this foamy broth tasted precisely like a a Spanish breakfast dish with the rich yolk mellowing the intensity of the onions admirably while the flavors of the tuber were largely relegated to an essence on swallowing.

Non-Alcoholic Beverage 6, Fortified watermelon and red pepper, tarragon, with beef boullion: I’ll use the word ‘interesting’ for this one largely because I can’t say I actually ‘liked’ it, yet at the same time I also couldn’t stop sipping it with each dish that followed since each ‘worked’ surprisingly well with the glass’ flavor profile. At first sweet, then intensely savory to the point of almost being ‘briny’ my favorite aspect of his pairing was the red pepper as it was the prominent smell but nearly undetectable in the mouth.

Trumpet carpaccio: A breathtaking dish from 1989 featuring trumpet and multiple other varieties of mushroom thinly sliced and arranged from the center of the plate radiating out. Described as being Adria’s first foray into utilizing vegetables as a central component with meat as only a garnish the flavors were intense, the textures compelling, and the five small rounds of lamb intriguing in their indistinguishable texture from some of the mushrooms but intentionally contrasting flavor.

Red mullet gaudi: Course 18 would show Beran and Achatz taking some liberties with Adria’s cuisine by first delivering a warm, clear plastic bag filled with water and shells and then placing atop it a glass plank covered with Red Mullet, white anchovy, shallots, pimento pepper, tomatoes, and more. The earliest dish on the menu and a tribute to Antoni Gaudi’s mosaics the most impressive aspect of this course aside from the presentation was just how mild the usually intense mullet was and how well it balanced with the vegetal components; a reminder that before he also became a culinary wizard, Adria was already a highly talented chef.

Nasturtium with eel, bone marrow, cucumber: Three bites on a slate – the first unctuous eel with a slight sweetness topped with smooth marrow, the second a bitter flower of nasturtium, and last a compressed cucumber. Instructed to eat from left to right the intrigue of this dish lied in the way each bite arrived separately but built on those preceding touching on all of the primary flavors sequentially without much overlap but creating something greater than the sum of its parts.

Civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly: The ‘main course’ if you will, this presentation from 2000 looked like many plates one sees in ‘modernist’ kitchens today – small protein, plenty of streaks, smears, dusts, and compressions – and marrying lean rabbit braised in juniper and red wine with apple jelly, muscavado sugar, cocoa powder, and blis vinegar the flavors were decidedly sweet but at the same time nicely mellowed by the addition of foie gras sauce. Like many of the dishes on the evening this dish did not seem all that ‘special’ until you took into account its birth date, but it was delicious either way.

Gorgonzola balloon: From 2009 and shattered tableside by one of our servers before adding grated nutmeg this frozen cheese course can be summed up with one word – Intense. Cold and pungent with only a touch of levity lent by the nutmeg this was the one course of the evening where the portion size was certainly too much and especially in the setting of my tablemates abstaining after only a couple bites much of the balloon went to waste, the texture becoming fairly unpalatable as the cheese melted.

Foie gras caramel Custard: Again rallying after a weak dish, at least for myself, this ‘crème caramel’ from 1999 imbued with the rich sapor of foie gras was everything one would assume from its title and having experienced foie gras in the form of crème brule but never as a flan before I was more than happy to eat my own and help out when one of my tablemates opted to forgo the rest of hers after a single bite.

Spice Plate: Dish 23 was great not because it was particularly delicious, but because it showed Adria’s sense of whimsy and invited the table to play along as a shallow ramekin with a thin green apple gel and twelve different spices was delivered with a pen and instructions; instructions to taste each of the dozen flavors and draw lines on the card connecting the flavor to the position on a clock. Clever and fun my gestalt is that my victory was based on the fact that I was the only one not indulging in the copious pairings, but I won and that is all that really matters…okay, I kid…kinda.

Non-Alcoholic Beverage 7, White tea, tangerine, verjus: Similar to pairing three with an admixture of tea, pureed fruit, and a touch of sweetness from the verjus but substantially less cloying due to the lack of florals while also more complex. While I can’t say I particularly understood how this drink ‘paired’ with the two dishes that followed it was quite delicious.

Mint Pond: I have an “annoying” habit (or perhaps more than one depending on who you ask) – I chew ice. No I’m not anemic, I just like the temperature and the texture, and with that said I was actually amused by a dish that many others have criticized, the 2009 “Mint Pond.” Quite simply a layer of ice on a frosted bowl topped tableside with matcha, peppermint, and brown sugar the guest is invited to ‘break the ice’ and spooning each chilly bite into the mouth brings forth notes of bitter, earthy, and mint to fully revitalize the palate.

Chocolate in textures: The night’s ‘proper’ dessert, an Albert Adria classic, this dish from 1997 was certainly the most complex dessert of the evening and with five textures of cocoa ranging from crisp milk chocolate paper to a thin line of bitter dark chocolate drizzled with a touch of boozy sweetness plus dense chocolate pudding and others in between this plate was yet another “hey, I’ve seen this before” moment that made the diner stop, pause, and realize that what Adria was doing 15 years ago is still being served as ‘haute cuisine’ on menus today.

Non-Alcoholic Beverage 8, White chocolate, black cherry, blackberry: An alternative to the Sangre y Trabajadero Sherry which I also tasted, and a very successful small glass of room-temperature liquid white chocolate infused with pureed black cherry and blackberry jam. Smooth, thick, and creamy it went very well with…

Chocolate donuts, Crème flute, Puff pastry web: Courses 26, 27, and 28 arrived together as the mignardises of the evening and with the donuts bitter and black as night on the exterior with cool, creamy coconut within they were certainly the highlight of the troika while the flutes and webs simply seemed to be another exploration of form and texture, the flavors really nothing more than that of a butter cookie.

Non-Alcoholic Beverage 9, Coffee (with Pedro Ximinez Sherry and Tequila cube): A small frothy espresso with deep caramel tones and notes of stone fruits plus a demitasse spoon alongside holding a gelee rife with notes of Sherry and Tequila. Instructed to either take the bite solo or to mix it into the coffee I opted for the former in order to prevent fowling the coffee and it proved a good choice as the cube was intensely bitter and I generally enjoy my coffee to stand on its own.

Passionfruit Marshmallow – The Farewell: A clever presentation of three metal bowls with rounded bottoms topped off by inflated rubber gloves intended to ‘wave bye-bye’ this veritable shell game asked the diner to guess which bowl contained the marshmallows and after the hands had finished bidding us farewell we discovered the last treat of the evening – small ‘marshmallows’ more consistent in texture with an after dinner mint and featuring the intense flavor of passionfruit.

Additional items from The El Bulli Menu at Aviary:

Cucumber, Coconut Water, Key Lime Amuse:

Coco-loco (Coconut Milk Shell with Rum, Tequila, Coconut meat Ice Cream):

Pina colada, the disappearing barbarpapa (Cotton Candy, Pineapple juice, Exploding Rum Spheres):

Morphings (Meringue with Pineapple soaked in Maraschino liquor, Raspberry with Balsamic Vinegar Foam, Dark Chocolate with puffed Rice, Orange Pate a Fruit in fennel pollen, Melted sugar with Star anise and Mandarin orange, Yogurt lollipop with Raspberry):

Bacon and date, Toasted corn croquant with guacamole, Huckleberry marshmallow, Passionfruit Diamond:

The Verdict: 29 courses and nearly 4.5 hours later my dining companions were both stuffed and likely a bit drunk while I was sated and amused. A genius like no other, all in all I was glad to have experienced Beran and Achatz’s retrospective of the life Adria and El Bulli, yet at the same time I was also a bit let down – particularly at the hefty asking price for a meal that although “good” certainly was not great and food that while interesting both in texture and technique as well as time and place was certainly not as wowing as I’m sure it would have been in the appropriate context in Roses. Like a remastered greatest hits record the end effect was fine, but in reality the meal itself would not even break into my top five thus far in 2012 and contrary to what every Next fanboy will tell you, this certainly was not the best meal I’ve had at Next – a title that still goes to Childhood where Beran and Achatz were allowed to truly flex their creative muscle rather than riffing from notes of the past.

Category(s): Chicago, Coffee, Crab, Dessert, Foie, Food, Ice Cream, Illinois, Next, Pork, Tasting Menu, The Aviary, Truffle, Vacation

8 Responses to Next “El Bulli” and The Aviary [3], Chicago IL

  1. After reading your El ideas review, I was really looking forward to this one; thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Thanks for the review… Very interesting – would loved to have tried it myself – but really enjoyed reading this as a substitute…

  3. The concept of Next was built more on re-interpretation than on organic creation. But when you start charging more than Alinea, one would expect a more authentic and singular experience…

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